Korea Confronts Spate of Phony Résumés

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

SEOUL -- An epidemic of phony academic credentials has broken out in South Korea, a nation where calibrations of human worth are obsessively tied to college achievement.

Admired performers, beloved media personalities, assorted academicians and a revered Buddhist monk have been exposed as long-time résumé inflaters. In most cases, they have confessed their sins and asked for public absolution.

"When I was young and was making my living singing commercial jingles, I lied and for the next 30 years that lie has been troubling my conscience," confessed Yoon Suk Hwa, 51, a famed and versatile actress who has been called South Korea's Meryl Streep.

The state prosecutor's office has launched a nationwide investigation this summer into fabricated degrees, plagiarized doctoral theses and forged test certificates. It has asked tipsters to call in with information.

"Even if you are accomplished in Korea, people are constantly asking about your college degrees," said Whang Sang Min, a professor of psychology at Yonsei University in Seoul. "You have constant pressure to fake it."

In an online statement, Yoon said last month that she faked it to enhance her career. She said she falsely stated on a résumé that she attended the prestigious Ewha Womans University. The lie took on a life of its own after she became well known. She was invited to speak at the university's chapel, where she recounted her supposed college memories.

Like Yoon, many of the fakers who have been outed this summer are prosperous and middle-age. Until their lies became public, they held solid perches in the Korean establishment.

They invented academic achievements three decades ago, when this prosperous nation -- now the world's 11th largest economy -- was still recovering from the economic and cultural devastation of the 1950-53 Korean War.

It was a time when traditional social structures had largely collapsed, when a college credential had become the preeminent measure of individual worth and when it was terribly hard to get into a good university.

"Unless you finished college, you were not really a decent human being in this society," said Whang, who has a doctorate in psychology from Harvard and studies South Korean popular culture. "For actors and for singers, it was the same. If you had a degree, people appreciated your acting and singing more."

Whang said a sizeable number of ambitious and talented Koreans who failed to get into the right university wrote fiction in résumé form in order to grab a secure rung in this credentials-crazed culture. For many years, no one checked them out.

A university credential in South Korea could even enhance the perceived holiness of a Buddhist monk -- and attract hordes of followers to his meditation center.

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